This essay is part of an extended and detailed series by Jeanne Willette. You can find other pieces in this series (to date) in the Avant-Garde section of this website.

Key Series: Art and Aesthetics

By Jeanne Willette

Among the most illustrious families in German culture was the Cassirer family, whose fortune came from factories in Berslau, generating enough income to allow the family the independence to do whatever its members chose, supporting the intellects of a neurologist, Richard, a conductor, Fritz, Ernst, the philosopher, and his cousins, Bruno, the publisher and Paul the art dealer, who teamed with Paul Durand-Ruel to introduce Impressionism to Berlin. Paul and Bruno Cassirer were publishers and gallery owners in Berlin, opening their joint enterprises in 1898 and at their Kunstsalon they held an exhibition of a dozen works of a very cutting edged artist, Paul Cézanne. But in 1901, the cousins went their separate ways, with Bruno continuing with his publications, being the first to produce illustrated art books. Paul concentrated on the gallery and continued as the publisher of various art-related journals, such as Pan.

Paul Cassirer was an example of the two-way “invasion” of German and French art worlds that was underway, with the art market blithely unconcerned about the politics of French Civilization confronting German Kultur in the art galleries of Berlin. For the French, “civilization” meant—rather imperialistically—bringing French culture to a benighted territory with the intent of imposing all things French upon a helpless colonial other. For the Germans, Zivilization was artificial and false, while Kultur not ideological but natural and pure, practical and materialistic,[i] a means of doing things efficiently rather than elegantly. Happily disregarding the clash between Zivilization and Kultur, German art dealers imported French art, starting with French Impressionism, still benighted and despised in its home country. And for effectiveness it was the German art dealers who were the most efficient in marketing and spreading the works of French artists, selling elegant French art to an international audience.

Indeed, this pre-war coterie of German dealers, joined financially with the French art dealers, moved French art out of France, where it was underappreciated, into Germany. In Berlin and Munich, the art audience, despite the political tensions, was more appreciative than in Paris. With Germany poised to join the rest of Europe in modernization, the Cassirer cousins were the right people at the right place at the right time, possessing the fortunes and the social standing to sponsor modern art in Berlin. A huge personality, Cassirer was well known to be a bit autocratic, strong-minded, strong willed, and something of a womanizer. He often irritated the artists of the Berlin Secession of which he was closely associated as co-secretary. But he was loyal to his Berlin artists, who tended to be sensitive in the face of the increasing volume of French art, always giving them places in some of his exhibitions. There was no denying, however, that Cassirer built his formidable reputation, not upon Berlin Secessionists, but upon French Impressionism and the international artist Vincent van Gogh. As Robert Jenson pointed out, Cassirer believed that the art market and the capitalization of the fine arts would free the artist, allowing him (or her) to be independent of the state. It was not the role of the art dealer to necessarily support only local or national artists; there was a higher calling, if you will, to art itself.[ii]

"Bridge at Argenteuil" by Claude Monet (1874)

“Bridge at Argenteuil” by Claude Monet (1874)

Berlin was not unfamiliar with Impressionism, for there were private collectors, the Jewish Russian émigrés, Carl and Felicie Bernstein, who held open salons, welcoming the art world to their Impressionist holdings. And as early as 1883, Fritz Gurlitt, of whom more will be said later, held an Impressionist exhibition, but he died in 1893 and his son Wolfgang had taken over and had added avant-garde German art to the gallery’s stable. Although the German monarchy attempted to repel modernist art, the tide was running against academic art and the only institution not under the unforgiving thumb of the state was the National-Galerie. Its director Hugo von Tschudi began collecting “national” art of the Berlin vanguard artists, Menzel and Böcklin and the Secessionist artists, to cover his ambitious acquisitions of French art, from Delacroix to Manet to the Impressionists. Tschudi was the first museum director anywhere in the world to acquire a Paul Cézanne in 1897, years before the artist’s retrospective in Paris. In 1908, when the Bernstein collection was bequeathed to the Galerie, the Kaiser intervened and removed Tschudi from his post. The director went on the curate the Bavarian State Picture Collection until he died in 1911 and left his personal collection of avant-garde art to the Neue Pinakothek in 1912, at a time when the Louvre was still repelling the Impressionist invasion.

The terrain in Berlin was both hostile and hospitable to avant-garde art when Paul Cassirer entered the scene. To understand the shock of Impressionism in Berlin at the beginning of the twentieth century, is to recall the long and bitter memories, stretching thirty years back into the past, between France and Germany. Germany was rising, flexing its muscles and France was a defeated power, waning and fading. The now dominant Reich was conservative, nationalistic and deeply suspicious of all things French, and “decadent” Impressionism was especially insulting to German sensibilities. The Impressionists, politically defiant or not, portrayed a thriving Parisian landscape of beauty, happiness, sparkling in the sunlight, a terrain of prosperity and peace, a France fully recovered from the damages of the Franco-Prussian War. It was Paris that put the “belle” into the Epoch and defeat had never looked so fashion forward. Reacting to this invasion of naturalism and contemporary life, the Kaiser thundered, “Art passing over the laws and bounds defined by Me is no longer art, it is factory work. It is industrial and art must never be that.” Paul Cassirer seeded his gallery exhibitions with controversial Impressionism, and it can be assumed that if one wanted to get an idea of that movement at the turn of the century, it would be preferable to go to Berlin and not to Paris. His friend – the writer and art historian Julius Meier-Graefe – would later say that it was Cassirer who was responsible for the “final victory” of Impressionism in Germany.

"Self Portrait with Easel" by Vincent van Gogh (1888)

“Self Portrait with Easel” by Vincent van Gogh (1888)

Cassirer’s alliances with French art dealers, Paul Durand-Ruel and the Bernheim-Jeune Galerie, allowed him to keep abreast of the trends in French art; but perhaps his greatest triumph was his support of a Dutch artist who had died just at the point when he was being noticed. At his death, the paintings left behind by Vincent van Gogh were inherited by his brother Théo, but Théo also died six months later. It is fortunate the deceased artist had a devoted sister-in-law. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger-Coen carefully protected what was her husband’s legacy, a life time of supporting avant-garde art, especially that of his difficult brother, Vincent. Early in the century Vincent’s work, almost two decades after his death, could still shock, but Johanna persevered, proceeding carefully, placing van Gogh’s art in exhibitions with caution and care. Cassirer first saw van Gogh’s work at Bernheim-Jeune Galerie in 1901, and became a devoted supporter of the artist’s career. Cassirer may have felt a genuine affinity with van Gogh (Cassirer would commit suicide in 1926) but, unlike the Impressionists, Vincent was relatively new in Berlin. The opportunity to promote and support a neglected artist, who was “northern” and not French, was important in those tense years. For over ten years, until the Great War, Cassirer mounted exhibitions for Vincent van Gogh, years before the retrospective in Paris, years before the Post-Impressionist exhibition in London. Cassirer hung his Vincents avant-garde style, namely, against the stylish walls of his gallery designed by Henry van de Velde, where the audience both screamed in horror and gasped in admiration. As a measure of the confidence Johanna had in the Cassirers, it was Bruno and Paul, who, in 1906, first published some of the edited letters that passed between Vincent and Théo. On the occasion of the last van Gogh exhibition on the eve of the War in 1914, Meier-Graefe wrote, “Van Gogh was the Christ of modern art. He created for many and suffered for many more. Whether he is or can be the savior that will depend on the faith of the younger generation.”[iii]

Emily D. Bilski of the Jewish Museum, wrote of the difficulty of finding the right language, in the wake of the Holocaust, to characterize the patronage of the arts by the Jews of Berlin. She mentioned the term “Bildung,” or “the individual pursuit of humanistic culture as an ideal. The men and women involved in modernism were members of the transitional generations of German Jewry: far removed from the insular life of the traditional Jewish community, well-versed in German culture, yet not completely assimilated into German society.”[iv] Berlin was the city of Herwarth Walden, who, like Cassirer owned a gallery and acted as a publisher, dedicated to giving voice to new ideas and wall space for new art. While cultural conditions for Jews were much the same in Vienna, the men and women who tirelessly supported the avant-garde in Berlin were doing so in order to fit in, to find a place, to contribute to society in social sites where there were spaces, places for them to succeed. As scholar Veronica Grodzinski wrote, “Indeed, this avant-garde circle of modernists subscribed to a new European vision which was inclusive and cosmopolitan. This was a liberal vision of a world that secular Jews longed for and it was to the international European intelligentsia that they wished to belong. Such a vision was clearly in contrast to the agenda of the average Wilhelmine citizen, who was conservative, nationalistic and generally xenophobic.”[v] It is through the efforts of these individuals, who in the fin-de-siècle period, just happened to be Jewish, incidentally, that so many avant-garde works of art found refuge and a new homeland in Germany. Even though it was decades away, with hindsight, one can see a tragedy brewing.


In the early years of the twentieth century, the art world became a battleground avant la grande guerre, so to speak, between France and Germany. The mutual suspicions were the leftover fumes of the Franco-Prussian War and the terminology surrounding the mutual concerns over the presence of German art dealers in Paris and of French art in Germany were militaristic. In the paranoid minds of the French, German dealers who sold French art and German collectors who purchased French art, threatened to somehow invade France and seize French art, the way the Prussians had invaded France not long before. French art, the national product, risked being Germanized the way the Germans had occupied France. Indeed, over time, due to the Kahnweiler connection, Cubism was considered “German” and was viewed with hostility in England during the Great War. The issue of “invasion” was more acute in Paris than in Berlin, where the German art scene in general was not determined by the Parisian Oedipal tradition of sons learning from and overcoming the fathers in a series of dialectical movements that established a French lineage. The avant-garde art of Germany was the creation, not of decades or of generations, but of the art market, which allowed artists to be independent from the state.

The Berlin Secession came into being in 1898 as a direct challenge to the control of the Reich and Emperor Wilhelm’s academic tastes, founded in order to give the participating artists the opportunity to take advantage of the market in international art. This economic intention was underlined by the presence of Paul Cassirer, who made sure that the Secession artists were shown regularly in his gallery. As opposed to France where there was a felt obligation to further the cause of art itself as a national goal, the Germans inhaled art from all corners and presented exhibitions to the newly wealthy collectors. Compared to Impressionism and Cubism, which were international in their scope, the German Expressionists were not often shown in Parisian galleries. Although it is seldom stressed, there was a real commitment in Berlin to support local artists, a commitment that did not exist in France. For example, a German museum was more likely to collect German avant-garde art than a French museum would exhibit French avant-garde art. But, given the overwhelming presence of European art in Berlin, what, precisely, was “German” art?

In 2013, an exhibition at the Louvre, De l’Allemagne – German thought and painting from Friedrich to Beckmann, unwisely attempted to answer that question and made everyone angry, igniting a Franco-German war of words. Sadly, from the very beginning of the modern period, “German” art was defined against French art, especially Impressionism. French art depended upon the senses or visual “impression” (Eindruck), based on sight; while German art was more “inward,” in the mind of the artist. Inspiration in French art came from outside the artist, while creativity for the German artist emanated from the “interior” or inwardness (Ausdruck). In fact, “Expressionism” was but a term used by art dealers as a sales pitch, allowing them to artificially merge a very disparate group of artists into a nice package for the art market. If one contends that “expressionism” is not a word to be taken seriously, then it is possible to forego the “defining” of “German” art and move on to the ways in which avant-garde in Germany was supported and exhibited and marketed as “expressionism.”

Oddly, the term “expressionism” emerged as a reaction to an exhibition of Fauvism in Berlin at the Secession of 1911. Used to distinguish Fauvism from Impressionism—a distinction that would not have been necessary in Paris—“Expressionism” entered into the linguistic parlance, dissociated with “German.” But the trend towards “expressionism” had a history, beginning with the exhibitions of the founding fathers Edvard Munch at the conservative Verein Berliner Künstler in 1892 and Vincent van Gogh at the gallery of Paul Cassirer in 1901. Munch, a Norwegian artist, who mixed his northern heritage with his experiences in the Parisian art world, created a scandal in the conservative artists’ association over his hybrid Symbolist-inclined and very personal art. The exhibition closed after a week of outrage. A decade later, shown in an appropriate and supportive venue, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh were better received and his work became a source of inspiration for those who wanted to go beyond Impressionism. A new art dealer, enterprising and expansive, burst on to the scene to handle this new and difficult generation of young artists. Picking up where Paul Cassirer left off, Herwarth Walden took up the cause of those who had split from the Berlin Secession. More than any dealer or art critic, he was responsible for naming the international young guard “Expressionists.” His gallery was hyperbolically named Der Sturm (the assault) and in his journal Der Sturm published the most radical writers and poets of the time, with the intent of disturbing the peace.

Cover of Der Sturm by Rudolf Bauer (October, 1917)

Cover of Der Sturm by Rudolf Bauer (October, 1917)

Unlike the venerable Gurlitt family and the gifted Cassirer family, Herwarth Walden came from a more mundane background and “Herwarth Walden” was not his real name. The bourgeois son of a Berlin doctor, Georg Levin was renamed by his first wife and created a new life and a new identity for himself as an art dealer who would almost single-handedly organize a (faux) movement, through marketing and organization. As Walden the showman, he organized a total of some two hundred shows, spreading “Expressionism” across northern Europe, preaching modern art (expressionism) and proselytizing for the new. But Walden was late to the game. The gallery opened in 1912, two years after the publishing house was started. Although his pre-war support of the new artists was very brief, Walden gave the artists a home. It was at Der Sturm that Der Blaue Reiter group first showed as a collective in 1911, just as the term “expression” emerged. In fact, Shearer West pointed out the Germans used a Germanized version of the French “expressionistes,” and in 1912, Walden used the term “Expressionisten” in the title of an exhibition, meaning “modernism,”[vi] not inwardness. ”Expressionist” they may have been, but “German” the Blue Rider artists were not. Vassily Kandinsky, Alexej von Jawlenski and Marianne Werefkin were Russian, while Franz Marc, Auguste Macke and Gabriele Münter were German. It is worth noting in passing that Kandinsky, a Russian, joined with Marc, a German, in support of a publication, The Battle for Art, which voiced fears of non-German influences on German art. However, Walden had no fears of tainting German art with ‘alien presences’ and he was responsible for taking the Futurist artists out of Italy and into Eastern Europe. The price the Italian artists paid was the same as any non-German artists showing in Germany, being melded with other avant-garde artists, regardless of nationality or content or style. Perhaps out of a desire to create a label to incorporate all of the artists he supported, the enterprising Walden wrote Expressionismus, die Künstwende in 1918, placing the Italian Futurists and the French Cubists and the Blue Rider artists under one tent. That tarp included the Austrian artist, Oskar Kokoschka, whose cover designs, a contorted version of Jungenstil, came to characterize the graphic aesthetic for Der Sturm publications.

Poster for Fritz Gurlitt Galerie by Max Pechstein

Poster for Fritz Gurlitt Galerie by Max Pechstein

As for Die Brücke, the artists arrived late on the Berlin scene in 1911. Today, thanks largely to their exceptional woodcut prints, this group of “Expressionists” is usually given equal status with Der Blaue Reiter, but the actual situation of these artists during their two years in Berlin were downhill from Dresden. In Dresden, the artists had been large fish in a small pond and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was their fearless leader. At the urging of their sometime colleague, Max Pechstein, the rest of the group joined him in Berlin, the big city, with high hopes. Walden seems to have done little for the newcomers with the exception the publication of a series of drawings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchener between July 1911 and March 1912. He also sent a monthly bill for advertising an art school Kirchner and Pechstein wanted to start. As Pechstein biographers, Bernhard Fulda and Aya Soika’s proposed school never materialized and, perhaps even worse, in Berlin, it was Pechstein who was considered the better artist. Even when Pechstein finally managed to persuade Wolfgang Gurlitt to give Die Brücke an exhibition, it was Pechstein, not Kirchner, who received all the attention. Relations between the artists became worse when Paul Cassirer poached the rising star, taking Pechstein on to greater glory, leaving Kirchner and the rest of Die Brücke behind. The price of this support was that Pechstein joined Cassirer’s Berlin Secession. Dismayed at what they saw as betrayal, the Die Brücke artists expelled Pechstein, who ironically had been named the “father” of Die Brücke and one of the leading “Expressionists.”[vii]

However the decision on the part of the group to leave provincial Dresden was a good one, because in these brief years in Berlin, Die Brücke achieved recognition and was invited to be part of the important Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne before Die Brücke disbanded in 1913. Clearly the concept of Expressionism existed before the Great War, the “German” aspect emerged later, and the artists who were scattered after 1914 had to wait for history to assess and group them. The wait would be a long one. As John Willett wrote in 1993, referring to “German Expressionism:” “in days of Hitler’s Degenerate Art Exhibition […] it was not much considered, shown or reproduced in Western Europe and America. Everything good and beautiful, we were told, came from France.” [viii] In fact, “German Expressionism” is a post-World War Two posthumous art historical invention, cobbled together out of the random works of previously obscure art that had somehow survived the Nazi purge, bearing little resemblance its actual condition one hundred years ago.


[i] Julie Reeves. Culture and International Relations: Narratives, Natives and Tourists (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[ii] Robert Jensen. Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-siècle Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)

[iii] Modris Eksteins. Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

[iv] Emily D. Bilski. Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890-1918 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999)

[v] Veronica Grodzinski. “Longing and Belonging: French Impressionism and Jewish Partonage,” Edited by Gideon Reuveni, Nils H. Roemer. Longing, Belonging, and the Making of Jewish Consumer Culture (Brill, 2010)

[vi] Shearer West. The Visual Arts in Germany 1890-1937: Utopia and Despair (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)

[vii] Bernhard Fulda, Aya Soika. Max Pechstein: The Rise and Fall of Expressionism (Boston: Walter de Greuyter GmbH & Co., 2012)

[viii] John Willett. “Forward. Expressionism: Bonfire and Jellyfish.” Edited by Shulamith Behr, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman. Expressionism Reassessed (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993)

Jeanne Willette

Jeanne Willette

Art historian and art critic, Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette lives and works in Los Angeles. An art historian at Otis College of Art and Design, the widely published author covers the local art scene and is the publisher of the website Art History Unstuffed. With an international audience, this website and its accompanying podcasts provides the 21st version of learning about art, history, philosophy and theory. Synthesizing the most updated research and commentary on topics in modern and contemporary art and theory, the website issues weekly posts which explain challenging concepts for an audience of art history peers and advanced students of art and philosophy. Designed to built knowledge for the reader, the posts are arranged chronologically and categorically. Beginning art history students are invited to view a series of almost thirty videos, written and produced by Dr. Willette, on the survey of art, an Art History Timeline, from the Caves through Romanticism, accessed through iTunesU and YouTube by thousands of readers. In addition to Art History Unstuffed, Dr. Willette has published a book of her podcasts, Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts is available through the iBooks. Long interested in the creation and construction of discourses, Dr. Willette has published a book on the intellectual matrix of original art critical response to Cubism, The Writing of Cubism: The Construction of a Discourse 1910-1914 and New Artwriting. Creating a Culture of Cyber Criticism, an examination of the production of knowledge in a postmodern age of “little narratives,” both available on her Amazon page.
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